Journey to the Center of My Pocket Protector (and Beyond)

When I was pregnant forever ago, I dreamed I was observing my daughter as an adolescent, living her daily life, becoming independent. I remember wondering, as I woke up, if I’d ever be able to look at her without being emotionally overwhelmed by love and fear and everything else. I knew I wanted to give her the world, but how? Parenthood seemed like such a symphony of emergencies when I was full-bellied-with-baby.

Then she went to kindergarten.

Began reading.

Discovered her own music.

And, suddenly, she was on auto-pilot — needing me to only serve as a bumper guard for her awkward, burgeoning life. (I’m not fooled, though; this is what I’ve been rehearsing for since my kid was born.)

With the potential for so much sensory overload, it’s important to steer our surly junior high replicas down good paths whether they seem to like it or not. Being a valuable parent is about making choices for our children and then allowing them to choose their own options from there. It’s not rocket science.

Or, maybe, it is partially rocket science.

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For Frank

Sometimes people ask why I write. They point out, “You don’t get paid for it.”

I get that. I understand how it’s possible to forget what’s important.

Every billboard, every TV ad, every everything is selling something incredible for us to drag around for the rest of our lives (or at least until the next version comes out in six months). You’re a failure at my age if your home hasn’t been demolished by an IKEA warhead. It’s growing harder and harder to keep up, too. Even in a tough economy, diamonds are getting bigger, cell phones are becoming more expensive, and manufactured beauty is referred to as “maintenance.” We’re taught to risk logic and forsake our budgets in order to consume happiness.

That’s crazytown, and I’m glad I’ve lived to care otherwise.

Once upon forever ago’s yonder morn, NPR broadcasted a segment of StoryCorps that drove a nail through my hardened, commercialized shell. It was a simple dialogue between Frankie DeVito and his mom, Diana, as they supported one another in sharing their loss of Bill Steckman, Frankie’s grandfather, who died during the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center towers. It wasn’t the only time I’d felt strongly about what happened that day, but hearing the unique combination of strength and devastation in ten-year-old Frankie’s voice was the first time I was truly overcome. Certainly, as often happens with great accounts of triumph and tragedy, this story lent itself to me at a time I most needed to hear it. Thus, I committed to change: What was once so tangible and important officially didn’t matter anymore. I wanted to value life like Frankie did and I didn’t want to wait around until I had to learn that lesson through extreme grief.

So I recounted it all here as well as in a couple of other places. And I wrote his mom through StoryCorps. I never thought I’d hear back.

Last night, years later, Frank, now older and minus the “-ie,” found my commentary. My heart stopped when I saw his name in my inbox because I think about this kid’s story all the time. He appreciates the things everybody has said about his grandfather, “…who I still miss so dearly in my heart,” Frank wrote.

Listen up. This is why I write, and there is no greater payment. Storytelling vs. Bank Telling? No contest. You can’t buy this.

When we die, like it or not, we leave the footprint of what we’ve accomplished. Having waded through nine bazillion funerals as a preacher’s kid, I can promise nobody ever eulogized: “He had the most expensive car. He bought his wife the biggest boobs. His children wore the most expensive shoes. What a great guy.” Things can be cool, but there is no greater legacy than being sincerely loved, being missed “so dearly in my heart.”

Frank, keep these priorities with you for all of your days, and your grandfather’s legacy will survive within the hearts of all who were transformed by your story, kid. I encourage everybody to spend a minute and a half listening to young Frank here, as he was brave enough to share his painful memories with StoryCorps. It is the least you can do to honor his efforts and the life of Bill Steckman, his grandpa.

Naysayers? Payment received in full…circle.

Facebook for intermediate users: Postmortem social networking with my grandmother

Although it was slightly alarming when Granny recently sent a friend request from nearly nine years beyond the grave, I did accept.

But now she’s haunting me on Facebook’s sidebar.

Stop it, Granny! You’re freaking me out now.

Of course, I’m kidding. I love it, and it’s not freaking me out…too much…yet. I know that even if Granny was still alive, there’d be no way she’d attempt to use a computer. In all of the time we lived together, she was never able to master the fine art of call-waiting, so one could gander a possibility that solving captchas might be above her technological skill set.

Facebook Granny has been kind enough to share a few tidbits — a few I didn’t know. For instance, her ashes are placed in an urn between her parents’ graves. You would think I should have known this, right? I forgot. I’m sorry. I thought they were still in Mom’s house on the shelf in her guest bedroom. I remember Mom yelling as I moved furniture around: “Watch it! Mom is on that top shelf!”

I’m not being snarky.

Part of me wishes you really were still in Mom’s guest bedroom, Granny. I miss your unexpected stories that always seemed to blow in from nowhere.

I know you were proud of Mom and your boys. I believe that you made things as right with the world as you could have, given your physical circumstances.

I’m not meaning this to be a letter to you, though.

The year Granny died, we were having coffee one afternoon when she looked at me suddenly and said, “Duty done, KK.” She felt like someone’s chore at the end of her life, and I hate that.

She truly enjoyed visiting with Bella and always kept a tin of shortbread cookies around to offer her. Granny = Cookie. In her final years, nothing delighted G more than: a blown kiss from Bella, anything Mom cooked, or a tragic local news story she could share before Mom read about it. You know, just the finer things in life.

As Mom and I stood over Granny’s lifeless body on the day she died, the stress of all the years spent watching her disintegrate reached its apex. We fought — probably the most public screaming festival of our lives. After we calmed down enough to pack Granny’s scant belongings — which easily fit into Mom’s backseat — Mom and I stopped when one of us found a hidden note in the drawer by Granny’s bed. It was shoved safely under the shelf paper so that none of the orderlies would ruin it or mistake it for something of monetary value. As we sat on the bed to read Granny’s treasured note together, Mom and I stopped trading snipes and then collapsed in tears inside each other’s arms. I won’t ever forget that afternoon.

It was a Mother’s Day card from granny’s third child, David. The date would have made him ten or eleven if I remember correctly. Perhaps, younger. The gist of what I recall was that he wrote, “You’re the best mother in the whole world.”

I think what touched my heart the most was that I imagined Granny reaching into her drawer from time to time, reading the note, and then placing it back in its hideaway for safekeeping.

Maybe she didn’t think she was a good mother. Maybe she wasn’t. Maybe sometimes she was. Maybe she was the best mother she could have been. Whatever the case, I guess that Granny kept the note because she wanted to remember a moment when she was “the best mother in the whole world.”

Anyway, Facebook Granny, I’m glad we’re friends.

Real Granny, Duty done.

The Bell, Letter Writer Extraordinaire. Snap, snap, snap.

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A while back I scanned some of Bella’s awesome letters — tattle telling quandaries and Mom-and-Dad billet-douxs, mostly. In a scavenger hunt through Photobucket tonight, I rediscovered a few of those.

The urgent letter to the Principal of W.T. Hanes Elementary:

Dear Mrs. Blevins

If I had to pick a favorite, the letter to Mrs. Blevins would probably be it. It’s got third-grade narcing, “panting,” and is signed with “love.” More importantly, this one demonstrates proper, early parenthetical usage, which makes this maternal word nerd’s heart swell times nine million. I remember scanning it, too, as I only had a few seconds to confiscate the note and replace it in order to avoid suspicion.

The Rick Perry Letter:

Oh, Rick Perry. You foolish politician, you.

The Perry letter was read aloud in a faculty meeting. THEN it was read again at an ATPE function later in the week. I’m tellin’ ya, the teachers really dug this one. I’ll never forget when Bella emerged from her room with her pen and notebook paper, wanting to know what Rick Perry’s address was. He never wrote back, but The Bell wasn’t worried about it. She told me, “Mom, didn’t you see the fake email address I put down there at the bottom? I didn’t want to hear his song and dance, but I didn’t wanna be rude either.”

I was confused, “Wait, huh?”

“Mom, it was a decoder email address. He wasn’t going to tell me anything I haven’t already heard before. Politicians. You know what I mean.”

“I think you mean a ‘decoy’, Bella.”

“Yes, that.”

Great.

The Colorado Vacation Letter:

Letter from Vacation with Nana

If I could spend just a few minutes with Bella again at any previous age, this would be the phase I’d revisit. She missed me “so much.” With an exclamation point, even. She wanted to know if Getoff’s baby was born yet, but, in typical Isobel fashion, didn’t want anyone to write back because she was belting out this letter on her way home in Nana’s rental car. The best part: a post script full of danger sure to freak out any mom included “…real prisoners and a dust devil and a cattle drive!”

The Birthday Card for Her Dad:

For Dad

It wasn’t so much the birthday card as it was the backstory. Inside the envelope, she’d enclosed a dollar and forty-seven cents. It was all of her money at the time. She’d overheard us arguing about bills.

Sometimes people with newborns ask me what my favorite age has been of Bella’s. Truly, I have loved them all just as much as they’ve each been challenging in their own ways. When I see her these days trying so hard to be a teenager, but without the teen suffix just yet, I feel incredibly close to her even though she’s pushing me further and further away. Recently, I read a fantastic quote in Mary Pipher’s book about adolescent girls Bella’s age, Reviving Ophelia, in which a mother perfectly sums up every thought in my head at this point:

“I hurl you into the universe and pray.”

The clever, young girl who wrote these letters surely deserves an addendum to the above quote, though, and that makes me less nervous, if nothing else:

“I hurl you into the universe and pray — for others.

I love, love, love this child forever.

Ivy Was Here.

I have just typed about thirty opening sentences for what I’m about to tell you. At this point, I think it’s only fair for me to just admit I don’t know where to begin so that I can get on with things and share this story in whichever way it chooses to unfold itself. Stick with me.

Ivy and I were doing some teenaged catching up via long distance (on Mom’s unsuspecting dime). It was incredibly important stuff: “Well, I’ve started getting out of my Duran Duran phase and am really into The Cure now,” she alerted.

“Oh, I saw them in July. Their bass player is SO cute.” Sigh.

“He’s my favorite! Do you like Sigue Sigue Sputnik? And Strawberry Switchblade?”

I guess the only thing that separated our conversation from any of my other highly productive, marathon giggle fests from 1987 was that it would be the last time we’d ever speak before Ivy Sunshine Lee took off and disappeared to wherever she went.

Seemingly unrelated, in January of this year, Anahata wrote an incredible story on Alexandria about her childhood friend, Susie, and how they’d recently reconnected online. I thought about all of the times I’d searched for Ivy Lee on every one of those places and got zip…until, miraculously, a woman named Amy stumbled upon Anahata’s post. Full of dread, I opened the email with Ivy’s name in the subject line:

“Hey – I was looking for some info on a girl I used to know named Ivy Sunshine Lee and your comment to someone else’s blog post came up. I’m originally from Commerce, TX, which is where I knew her from. I was wondering if she’s the same Ivy you are looking for. Her mom’s name was Donna. Don’t know about her dad. Were you ever in Commerce? Do you think this is the same girl you are looking for? Please let me know, I may have some info for you.”

I responded immediately. While I waited for Amy’s reply, I remembered things about Ivy I hadn’t visited in a long time.

We met when we were six. Nervous and in a new school, I was a goody-goody, book nerd while Ivy was a spritely, freckled fairy straight out of Mark Twain’s imagination. She asked right off if it would be alright if she called me “KK,” which is what my family had nicknamed me. Later, I came to understand that Ivy seemed to know things beyond mere coincidence and intuition. Whatever the case, I was instantly impressed. And intrigued.

She had super creamy white skin dabbled with those faint freckles and very long, dark, daaaaark hair. I always wanted to be as beautiful as Ivy. Sundresses EVERY single day in bright colors and high heels! Her mother let her wear those little Candies heels to school even. Sigh. Oh, Ivy: the luckiest girl alive.

The next year, I wrote my very first essay ever; Ivy proofread it. She would have been the worst fact checker in the world.

“KK, this is boring. You should put something scary in here, like, ‘Sharks eat thousands of people who swim in the ocean every year.’ “

“But, Ivy, I don’t think that’s true.”

“Well, you know sharks eat people. Ugh, I don’t know, how about saying just 40 or 50 people?”

And so it was. The infamous line was born. I penciled in: “Sharks only eat about 40 or 50 people every year.” There was no point in minimizing Ivy’s suggestions. She knew storytelling was much more fun than reporting before I even knew I was a writer. The accompanying illustration was a heavy fare, depicting a shark’s fin amongst body parts and blood. To be clear, I was a little sketchy about turning it in, but was really pleased when Ivy later gloated, “See? I TOLD you you’d get an A.” Thanks, Ivy. [Thanks, Jaws.]

We argued about lip gloss and whether or not it was okay to share the same tube. We argued about church. We argued about who got to play the role of Pat Benetar when we lip-synced “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” I never won any of those arguments, and, thus, always ended up relegated to playing air guitar on her tennis racket while she silently belted out Pat’s song over and over and OVER again.

During the community center’s summer screening of “Grease,” I broke the bad news.

“Ivy, we’re moving.”

She cried through the rest of the movie, and so did I. We were the best of pals during that great time in life when it was still okay to hold your best friend’s hand everywhere you went together.

Years passed, and we kept in touch. Ivy always sent crazy cards and drawings in the mail in random spurts. Through the terrible inconvenience of distance and parents who disliked one another, Ivy and I eventually lost touch and traveled life in separate paths.

“…and so then he kissed me. Kristan Ka, it was so intense.”

“Oh, I hope I can meet him soon. Hey, we never got to go to Six Flags like we’d planned. Maybe we can get together before summer’s over, and you can bring him!”

(In that year, I think all of my sentences ended in exclamation points.)

“Toooootally. I have to go. I’ll call you soon. Love you.”

“Love you, Ivy.”

With incredible sorrow, I read Amy’s thoughtful response this afternoon:

“Well, I’m afraid it’s terrible news. Ivy drowned in Lake Travis in Austin in 2001. I believe she would have been 28 years old. I was searching online actually for her obituary to send to my brother for something his HS class is working on, when I saw your post. I’m so sorry to have to tell you this but when I saw that you’d been looking for her, I figured you’d want to know. She definitely was a character… I didn’t know her that well but from what I did know, she was just a light and lots of fun.

Anyway, I know this isn’t the news you wanted to hear and again, I’m sorry… ((((hugs))))”

As it turned out, Amy’s brother was the boy Ivy had the crush on decades ago. Say it: It’s a small world.

When I closed Amy’s email, I became very upset knowing I’d never get to introduce Ivy to my little girl. I thought it’d be a pretty cool thing to take Bella and her best friend with us to Six Flags. Finally.

So it goes on without her. Ivy Sunshine Lee was one part firecracker, two parts raw sugar, a dash of trouble, a sprinkle of chance, three tablespoons Olivia Newton John-slash- Pat Benetar, and a priceless, last, long distance phone call made without permission.

And, Anahata, the next time you see Susie, if for no other reason, hug her just because you can.

Rock Star of the Month: Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson

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It was about eleven-thirty last night when Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson recognized the guy in front of us in line at the post-lecture signing.

“Your name is Kirby, right?”

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Beyond amazement, the guy responded: “That’s good. Wow, it’s been thirty years. I didn’t think you’d remember meeting me.”

“Of course, I remember! We all swam in your pool, and you fed me that incredible sausage. MAN, that was some good sausage! You still make that?”

Sensing the pressure of the incredibly long line and all of the folks waiting in it, Kirby politely inched forward. Tyson yelled, “Hey! Look me up on Facebook, man. There are some impostors, but you’ll figure it out. Let’s catch up.”

Russell and I swapped awe. The real Neil deGrasse Tyson is on Facebook?! He has fond memories of backyard barbecue delicacies?! Snap. He isn’t just the world’s coolest astrophysicist; he’s also mortal. Insanity. Raise the roof.

Let me back up, though. About a week ago, I was wigging out about what to do for Russell’s Valentine’s Day gift, or, rather, the lack thereof. I didn’t have a lot to spend, but even worse, my efforts to wrangle creative solutions fell short. An attempted beading project looked like something from church camp, 1981.  A Valentine’s recipe search yielded nothing suitable for my pre, pre, pre-beginner cooking level. Randomly, a friend sent a link to Dr. Tyson’s local appearance the following Tuesday, and, as luck might have it, the tickets were FREE. I purchased his latest book The Pluto Files and designed a card, which read:

 

Dear Russell: 

Hello. It is out of dire urgency I write to you this day. 

Allow me to introduce myself properly. I am one of the largest masses within the cosmic Kuiper belt, but you may remember me as: the Planet Formerly Known as Pluto. 

In 2006, I was stripped of my noble title and scientifically reclassified as a “dwarf-planet.” Dwarf planet, my ass. Pfft. 

On Tuesday, February 17, 2009, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the chief culprits responsible for my planetary demotion, will presumably be talking smack about how I’m not good enough to rank number nine anymore. Your mission is to attend Tyson’s 8 o’clock lecture, during which he’ll blather on about me and other items of astrophysical interest. 

Refer to Ms. Austin for necessary data. 

Sincerely yours (and happiest of Valentine greetings),

Pluto

Dwarf Planet, Kuiper belt

Milky Way Galaxy 

P.S. “PLANET” Earth is a tiny, nearly indiscernible speck stuck in the armpit of the cosmos, and, no, I most certainly do not suffer from planet envy.

So, er, voila! Valentine’s crisis averted in the nerdiest way possible. Nothing says “I love you” like astrophysics, right?

On the evening of the event, we arrived at Texas Hall an hour early, but the front half of the lower level was already packed. That’s right, for a scientist. In Texas, even. Russell and I selected a decent enough spot and got our laptops ready to take notes while the guy behind us was loudly telling everybody within listening proximity why the speaker wasn’t a real scientist. I wondered what you had to do to be a “real scientist.” I mean, is being on NASA’s private advisory council not science-y enough? What about physics degrees from Harvard AND Columbia? Teaching astrophysics at Princeton? Hosting NOVA? Directing the Hayden Planetarium? I could go on, but you get the idea. Eager to draw my own plebeian conclusions, I was relieved when the lights finally dimmed at 8 o’clock, and the President of UT Arlington, James Spaniolo, addressed both levels of the crammed auditorium.

“Is it coincidence,” he began, “that Dr. Tyson was born in the same week of 1958 as NASA was founded?” I decided it was, in fact, mere coincidence after a quick jaunt to Wikipedia revealed no mystical occurrences during the week of my own birth. Heh. Nevertheless, Spaniolo’s question was inadvertently fantastic. Do the laws of physics allow for coincidence?

He continued, “…and if that is not enough, Tyson also won a national gold medal in ballroom dancing.” Really?  Had he also discovered the secret of the pyramids or the whereabouts of Jimmy Hoffa’s dead body? Was there something this nerd hadn’t done? The guy hadn’t even taken the stage, and I already was fantasizing about Being Neil deGrasse Tyson, the sequel in which I manage to redirect the portal from John Malkovich to Dr. Tyson.

Then he appeared: Isaac from “The Love Boat” in jeans, a sports jacket, and cowboy boots. The crowd went bonkers — rock star bonkers. I loved it.

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“Hold on. I forgot to empty my pockets. I have so much crap in here,” he announced. Placing his “crap” on the podium, he paused, looked at us, and then proceeded to yank his boots clumsily from his feet. “Now I feel like an astrophysicist. Everybody comfortable?”

For the next hour and a half, we listened to Tyson’s diplomatic, sensitive-to-religious-zealots views about our country’s lack of scientific interest and funding apart from times of war or economic competition. “Guess what? If China announced it was going to Mars, we’d be there in ten months. Ten months! Faster if we discovered oil, of course.” Standing on the stage in his socks and with his arms stretched w  i  d  e, he loudly warned us twenty minutes into the discussion:

“There’s no funding for science in this country unless we can make a weapon or the face of God appear at the end of a particle accelerator.”

Tyson told us, “I respect the religious freedom of our nation. It is what we were founded upon. However, that doesn’t mean science is wrong. Science knows what it is and what it isn’t.” When someone asked about the effects of Intelligent Design being introduced into classrooms along with the Big Bang Theory, NDT answered, “It is non-science, the beginning of the end. That’s what the Philosophy of Ignorance is for students. There’s no history of scientists protesting outside of churches. Do you ever see that sort of thing? No. They’re [Creationists] free to believe what they want, and we don’t interfere, but the minute you quit teaching science — it’s just the beginning of the end.” Dr. Tyson elaborated with examples of avoidable, recent occurrences, which he felt were directly related to our societal reluctancies toward progress. “Katrina was a class three hurricane when it hit land. The levees broke after the storm passed. After, OK? AFTER! Faulty engineering is responsible for what happened there. That’s bad math.” He flashed images of the extreme devastation.

Total quiet all around. He truly felt this dumbing down of society. Furiously.

“Bridges collapse. Faulty engineering, again. A steam pipe exploded a couple of years ago. Remember this one? This is New York City, folks. What country are we living in that we can’t move steam in a pipe from one place to the next without this kind of thing happening?! OK, here, look, this is a good one: Two trains collided, and, by the way, this isn’t some podunk town. It’s Los Angeles. Los Angeles! This is technology that we perfected in this country in, like, 1903. What is going on!?” Then he let us in on the obvious answer: “Smart people went elsewhere.” We’re not generating interest amongst youngsters, and they know they can make money doing other things.

Naturally, I thought about my own kiddo. Bella was wildly irritated with me recently because I forced her into joining the science club. The school even tried to bribe the reluctant kids with the Golden Calf — a non-uniform day. Behold! Still, it was a hard sell until The Bell actually reported back from her first meeting: “Oh, my gosh. Mom! Science club was sooooo much fun. We did an experiment where we…and then we…and…and…and…thanks for making me do it.” That’s all it took. I am all too familiar with the validity of Tyson’s previous point regarding funding and urgency of promoting math and science. Our teachers generally do their best with the resources they can afford from their allotted and, frequently, personal budgets. Unfortunately, it’s the initial spark that seems to be most absent, and that’s what is truly crucial, I think. He’s right; we need to step up our game or continue to decline.

Earlier in the discussion, NDT presented several versions of the Periodic Table of Elements color-coded according to melting point, compatibility, as well as years and nationality of discovery. Then he pointed out the most common elements found within our planet as well as those found most frequently within the universe. As it turns out, Earth and its universe share four of the top five from both lists. With sextillion stars, Tyson noted, it would be, perhaps, the most conceited thought to believe we’re alone, that there aren’t beings looking at us exactly the way we’re looking at them through reversed images of the vast galaxies and universes between us.

We sat, all five bajillion gawzillion batillion of us, in the dark now, silent and thoughtful as the last image of the cosmos lingered on the screen. Russell held my hand, and I put my head on his shoulder.

“The universe is you, and you are the universe. There can be no greater reward than that.”

Doubting Thomas behind us broke the silence, “This guy is fucking genius.” I guess Tyson’s not just a rock star after all. He might even be a real scientist.

Or, perhaps, NDT is more aptly also a minister of science, a reverend of astrophysics, preacher man of the stars. Why? Because as the daughter of one Reverend Dr. Jack P. Busby, I spent my entire childhood held captive in a church pew listening to the quirkiest, smartest, most articulate theologian in this area — my dad — peddle Christianity every Sunday. He meant it. He BELIEVED in it, and I really wanted to feel the connection his congregation members obviously felt when they raised their hands and voiced their Amens and praise-to-be’d their Jesuses. It just never happened. Something wasn’t there, and I was pretty sure I was gonna end up somewhere on the dark side of Satan’s lair eternally confused. However, as I sat there with my head on Russell’s shoulder and my hand inside his, listening to Dr. Tyson’s evidence, feeling new and undeniable fellowship with Doubting Thomas and the other five bajillion gawzillion batillion people around us, it occurred to me that I was at church. Finally. It only took me thirty-five years to get there. Scientifically speaking, that’s not such a bad rate of evolution, I guess.

As the lights came up and Neil deGrasse Tyson began taking questions from the peanut gallery, Russell quickly ran to grab a place in line for the book signing. He texted my phone: “You’re so hot when you’re in student mode.”  We smiled at each other from across Texas Hall. Success. My Valentine scheme was triumphant.

The questions continued for an hour and a half: “What do you think about string theory?” “Does it bother you that you’re light years away from everything you’ve studied in the cosmos?” “Should we break up the NASA monopoly and initiate private launches?” “What do you think about PETA — People for the Ethical Treatment of Aliens?” When Dr. Tyson announced he’d taken the last question of the evening, a little boy stood in the far aisle somewhat dejected as the rest of the audience members settled back into their seats. Dr. Tyson interrupted the low muffle of the crowd:

“Wait, there’s a little kid right there. I would like to take his question if you don’t mind.”

The kid stepped up to the microphone and adjusted it as Dr. Tyson asked, “OK, how old are you?”

“I’m ten.”

“Ten? I was your age when I became interested in the stars. I used to look through my telescope at night and wonder what all was out there. You ever do that?”

“Yes, I do.”

“You’re up kind of late, aren’t you? You must have a good question.”

It was almost half past eleven on a school night. The kid stood there for a minute before his voice filled the auditorium, “Dr. Tyson, I was wondering…what would you do with a black hole if you could control it?”

(Sigh) You know, sometimes there are moments in my life I know, as they’re occurring, I’ll never forget. This was one of them.

“A black hole, a black hole, a black hole of my own. Hmmmm. You ever do laundry at home?”

“Yes.”

“Well, you know how sometimes you wind up with one sock and always wonder what happened to the other one?”

The kid laughed, “Yeah.”

“Well, if I had my own black hole, I’d use it for throwing all those ‘other’ socks into. And garbage. I’d let everybody throw their garbage in it. That’s probably the best thing you could do with a black hole.”

“Thank you.”

“Wait, you know, if you ever just happen to find a black hole, you shouldn’t get too close because this thing called spaghettification will occur, and you’ll stretch ooooouuuuttt, which wouldn’t be very good. That’s why you should just stick to the lost sock and garbage idea.”

Gosh, I know it sounds crazy, but the whole thing made my eyes kinda mist up. I closed my laptop and joined Russell, who was still texting me sweet messages from his place in line on the other side of the room.

Even though he was absurdly late and totally off-schedule, NDT happily settled into a seat at the table on stage and signed books, etc., for the crowd. The line stretched around the entire auditorium. I couldn’t get past his enthusiasm. It was contagious. As he signed Russell’s book, I asked about the Rubik’s Cube next to him: “Do you always carry one or what’s going on here?”

He laughed, “No, they [pointing to a couple by the side of the stage] brought this and asked if I’d sign it for them. See, it’s only solved on one side, so if I sign it, it’ll just be scrambled if they ever try to solve it entirely. I’m going to solve it for them when the line’s died down, and then I’ll sign it.”

Astrophysicists are incredibly kind, patient rock stars, apparently. At least, this one is. What a super cool guy.

A little after midnight, we dragged our weary brains and feet to the confines of our vehicle. Dr. Tyson was still wiling away the night signing autographs, of course. Russell thanked me all the way home: “I really enjoyed that. I want you to know tonight was the coolest thing ever, and I love you so much.” He might have ruined Pluto’s rep, but NDT saved Valentine’s Day for me.

The next evening, Bella asked, “Mom? Didn’t you say you got a NASA sticker for me?”

After giving it to her, she immediately put it on her school binder,”This is so cool! Thanks.”

(This Neil deGrasse Tyson guy was scoring me all kinds of street cred, yo.)

“You’re welcome, Bella. Look, I have a brochure, also, on the scientist Russell and I saw last night.”

“Neil deGrassy…”

“deGrasse. He is an astrophysicist. You know what that means?”

“Yes, he studies the stars and planets.”

Good for her. “Yeah, but look at all the other stuff he does.” I totally sold Dr. T to her like there was no tomorrow, or, rather, like she was the only one who could save tomorrow. As she read through his bio, Bella said he seemed really cool. Then, she stuffed the brochure into her school binder behind the NASA sticker.

“You’re taking it to school?”

“Yeah, Mom. This guy is awesome. My news crew teacher is always asking for us to bring in stuff about good role models.” Wow. I went from being the worst mother in the world for making my kid join the nerd squad to being a beloved Science Mom. Yep. I’d ask for my gold star right about now, but I think this is the sort of thing parents are *supposed* to do by default of, well, being parents.

The world, with us in it, is kind of a horrifyingly beautiful, yet predictably random place. When everything comes together and the seas seem calm and endless, there are twice as many stars in the sky. Last night, Dr. Tyson donned his astrophysical superhero cape and reminded us of the importance of exploration — mentally and physically. He stormed the stage with anecdotes about Sir Isaac Newton. He implored us to become patrons within our scientific communities, to go out and foster our future generations. I’m giving my kid her starter cape to wear for her closed circuit, televised school report about Dr. Tyson’s role in universal scientific exploration. But first, I had to know: “Bella, who was Sir Isaac Newton?”

“He was the guy who first talked about inertia.”

Inertia, she said — NOT “The Seatbelt Law.”

Dr. Tyson, there’s hope after all.

(Thank you.)

Drox

I’m not sure I can accurately describe what it felt like as I watched the veterinarian’s assistant weigh my fourteen year-old dog to determine the cost and amount of necessary whatever-it-is-they-use for euthanasia. My friend and ex-husband kneeled next to the scale and told our old border collie it was “okay,” but I couldn’t decide if we were traitors or Jack Kevorkians or saints or terrible dog parents or what for having let him suffer as long as he did.

64lbs = sixty-something bucks, or $102 if you wanna hang around.

We hung around. Seemed like the right thing to do after all the years he put up with us.

Hydrox, by Michelle McLaughlin

Hydrox, by Michelle McLaughlin

Hydrox was born on January 8, 1995 — the last-born, runt pup from a litter of five. It took his mom 45 minutes longer to have him. He was so tiny and with sharp claws, like a little black and white rat. I used to carry him around on my shoulder because he yelped for attention constantly. God, he really was the most adorable puppy ever.

My ex was in the Marine Corps, so throughout those years we spent away from home, Hydrox was often my only friend. In the mornings when we lived on the west coast, Drox and I walked to the top of the mountain behind our home and watched the fog settle, sometimes revealing the distant ocean on a clear day. Hydrox loved watching the sunrise and the sunset. During twilight walks, he sometimes ran off to play with a coyote pal he’d made, which always flipped me out. He never needed a leash unless we were going to be taking the cat with us (but that was just because Hydrox’s pet cat, Edie, would only walk on one if she was leading the caravan). He didn’t mind sucking it up for the cat — or any cat — and seemed to think it was his duty to make sure all felines throughout the course of his life were cleaned daily and kept in good spirits.

While I was pregnant with The Bell, Hydrox gained sympathy weight and lots of it. We went to Subway every day back then. I always ordered Drox a meatball sub as he watched patiently through the window. One afternoon, the owner invited him inside, gave my dog his own Subway Club card, and insisted we eat in the restaurant at a booth. When a customer complained once, she told the guy: “That dog is one of my best customers, and he’s welcome to sit in that booth as long as he wants.” It’s the sort of thing that would probably make Subway’s corporate office cringe, I guess, but, hey, Hydrox was a lot more hygienic than some of the other regulars.

Hydrox used to stare at my tummy when The Bell would go crazy in there. He’d listen to her, step back in shock, lay his head on my gargantuan belly, and jump back again. I’ll never forget the day we brought Bella home and watched carefully, neurotically as Hydrox and his Edie cat peered into the carrier. He licked Bella’s forehead, but I could tell he was incredibly sad about being knocked down a notch on the totem pole. My mother’s favorite photo of him was taken by her the next morning as he and Edie waited anxiously outside our bedroom door.

Shortly thereafter, the USMC active duty was at an end, and I packed up The Bell and pets and moved back to Texas while my spouse finished school in Florida. Once again, Hydrox was my closest friend. He was up with the baby. He was down with the baby. He and Edie cat kept the “vampires and the elephants and the werewolves and all those sorts away from The Bell.” I thought he was the best baby accessory ever — always there to clean up the floor after mealtime, always there to alert me when there was a tasty, er, dirty diaper.

A year or so later, Edie was stung by a wasp in the throat. My former husband was mowing the lawn. I heard the engine cut off. Rustling. Then the door opened to the house: “Kristan, Edie is dead.” Hydrox followed us to the edge of the half-mown yard later that day, nudged her small, black body, waited as we heart-brokenly buried her. Then he sobbed on her grave for two hours until my ex dragged him back into the house. People who say animals have no feelings are full of crap. Hydrox mourned the death of Edie for such a long time. I still feel like crying when I think of his whimpering on that fresh mound of soil a decade ago.

Loved: polka, wooly bears, Hot Chocolate’s song “You Sexy Thing,” snacking on pepperoni pizza bones while watching the movie “Babe”, strawberry Nutrigrain bars, Dr. Doolittle, kitties, “T-rex” bones, sneaking into bed, truck rides IN the cab, cat food, Shark Week, Abe, trips to Subway, Little Jenny, California, butt rubs, posing for photographs.

Hated: The TV show “Flipper” (after we left the TV on an Animal Planet “Flipper” marathon and went to work one day; He was never the same with Flipper after that), blueberry Nutrigrain bars, dog sweaters, leashes, Hawaiian shirts, my close friend Chuck, bubblegum, car rides, Elvis, our old roommate Drew, The Anti-Chewing Cone, being called “fat.”

Memorable moments:

Hydrox attacked an Elvis cardboard cutout thinking it was an intruder once.

The day we put a hood over the litter pan, Hydrox was found in the living room dragging the cat box around because he’d gotten it stuck on his head.

We told Bella that he was “Jeff,” our first-born child, who turned into Hydrox on his sixth birthday. She didn’t fall for it. My ex pointed out this morning that the Jeff story never translated well for others, but he still cracked up thinking about it anyway.

Hydrox suffered for a long time. Just his luck, he was allergic to grass and fleas and, gosh, who knows what else. We called him the Six Million Dollar Dog because his vet bills felt like that much. We even discussed pet health insurance a few times. I know that sounds insane. Hydrox’s “dad” used to tell our friends that he thought Hydrox had really died a long time ago, but my love was keeping him alive in some weird zombified, Pet Cemetery way.

When I divorced, Hydrox was devastated. I left Drox because I had to. It kills me to think he probably thought I abandoned him these last two years, that I only came to say hello for a couple minutes once or twice a week. I thought about him all the time, about how he seemed slower each time I was there, about how grey his black fur had gotten. He couldn’t see well. He couldn’t hear because of all the ear infections. When the ex told me Hydrox had begun falling down the stairs, I knew it was time.

This morning I met my old friend/ex-husband, at that place I used to live. We drank coffee; I petted his cats. The portrait I’d had taken of a six month-old Bella with Hydrox and his favorite bone hung above the desk. We dug up the leash from the last time we took Hydrox to the vet and gossiped about a bunch of idle chit-chat that had nothing to do with what was about to happen. Then we helped Hydrox into the backseat of my truck.

At the vet, I tried to behave like it was just going to be another annoying allergy treatment or something so “Jeff,” our first-born, wouldn’t get too nervous.

“He’s 64lbs.”

My ex-husband didn’t have to say anything. I knew we both remembered when Drox was twice that, the lug. As I turned from the scales to the reception desk, I got overwhelmed by it all. The lady handed me a Kleenex and told me she was so sorry, and I believed her. I’d hate to have to see that sort of thing everyday.

While we waited in the little room before the vet arrived, we told Hydrox how much we loved him, how he’d always been such a good friend. We were “sorry.” There was “gonna be a place,” we told him, “where he wouldn’t have to take baths all the time.” Drox nuzzled his snout in the crook of my elbow. I hate to say, but he was really scared, and I feel awful about that.

Then it was really time. I stared into his brown eyes until he wasn’t behind them anymore. My ex bent to the ground, and the vet told us, “Hydrox seemed like a nice dog.” That’s what everybody said.

On the way back, I noticed two spots on my sleeve — from his snout, still damp from when he’d buried his doggy nose there.

I can’t believe he’s gone. I can’t believe it was fourteen years. Already.

In a few minutes, we’ll pick The Bell up from school. It will be the first day she’s been alive without Hydrox, and I hope she isn’t mad at us for not keeping her home. There were zero easy decisions with zero right answers today, but I know one thing for sure: I loved him.

And for what it’s worth where ever you are now:

Dear Hydrox,

Thanks. I know you were a mind reader, so it’s not like I have to really say anything else, but I was pretty upset earlier and forgot to say some stuff.

I always told you the truth. You always listened. I’m still sorry I made you wear the green sweater that one winter. And the cone, I’m sorry I paraded you around with that thing on in public.

You were the runt, but you survived your mom, your three brothers, and your sister. So, you won. Nyah. Stick it to ‘em.

I’ll be alright. I promise.

Go get Edie now.

I love you again, Hydroxygen.

XO, Mom

And if that hambone could speak from beyond the grave, he’d have one last thing to add, I know:

So long and thanks for all the …meatball subs.

Hydroxygen, January 8, 1995 – January 26, 2009: First-born, loyal friend, faithful compadre, wonderdog.

Grandmother’s Guinness Book of Something

As I kissed my Grandmother Ruth goodbye, I noticed two things: The Dunny I brought last Mother’s Day was on display next to her chair, and Grandma’s toenails were excessively overgrown. Oh, gross. I was shocked agents from Guinness hadn’t been by to authenticate some sort of world record. Unable to leave Grandma like that, I escorted her to the bedroom and sent Dad on a search for de-hoofing tools. 

“I know they’re long, KK, but I can’t get to them anymore.”

Dad returned with a complete pedicure kit. The three of us looked at each other, and I felt certain Grandma was the only one amongst us with prior foot fancification experience [Don King-ism, thank you]. I sent Dad out of the room and apologized to Grandma, “I have never done this before. I don’t want to hurt you, but some of these nails are turned under and look ingrown, ok?”

With that, I surveyed the torture devices within the nail kit. I was only cutting the nails. That was it. Nothing else, none of the frou-frou stuff.

Laying back on her pillow, Grandma winced.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Are you ok?”

“Yes, honey. It’s not hurting me.”

Liar. I’d have to be more careful.

I slowly worked my way across each toe on each foot. Some of the trimmings flung themselves into my face as I snipped them. I can’t believe I am doing this. Gross. A dense layer of white clippings decorated the front of my black vest like fungal, calcified snowflakes. Oooooh, my god. I brushed myself off and caught eyes with Grandma. Humiliated and embarrassed, she apologized. I pulled the giant emory board from its plastic pouch. I’m going to file this mess down so she won’t cut herself with these sharp former-talons, and that’s it.

“Does that hurt? I am bad at this kind of stuff.”

She shook her head.

“Does it tickle or anything?” 

“No, doesn’t tickle, honey.”

Twenty minutes later, Grandma had human toenails again. I could almost hear the Guinness guys getting back inside their cars. Ashy with nail dust, Ruth wiggled her toes.

“Thank you so much. I know how unpleasant that was.”

Sigh, I am going to wash her feet with a washcloth, and that is it.

“I hope this isn’t too cold. I have to clean your feet.”

“Alright. Thank you again.”

“You don’t have to thank me, Grandma.”

I blotted the pads of her toes.

“Oh, I really do appreciate this. It feels so nice.”

Good, I wasn’t killing her. I grabbed the mammoth bottle of lotion next to her pillow.

“I’m going to massage your feet a minute, ok?”

She leaned back and closed her eyes. I worked the lotion over her incredibly dehydrated feet and calves.

“That just feels wonderful.”

“I’m so glad to do it. All you have to do is ask for help.”

“You get used to it — the long toenails and, you know, the other things that happen when you get older.”

“You don’t have to. Dad is always here.”

“I hate to bother him,” she said as she struggled up. “I can’t find the controller for my bed. It is usually right here.”

I put the lotion on the shelf and raised her into a sitting position. Ruth grabbed my hand. “I know your father did not have a perfect life, and I want you to forgive him like I forgave his father. Your grandfather wanted to do things, to buy things for you all, but he couldn’t bring himself to…to communicate. He was so awful at that.”

I sat down next to her. There wasn’t anything left in the pedicure case for me to tackle her with next. 

“I know, Grandma.”

“You were a handful, KK. You were not an easy child. I am still so proud of you, my sweet grand daughter. Look at you now. Just look at you.”

Look at what? What did she mean? 

Grandma continued, “You don’t even know it yet.”

“Know what, Grandma?”

“You’re a good person. I love you so very much. I wanted you to know.”

We were totally having the conversation I wanted to have with her at the hospital. I couldn’t believe it. Suddenly, my face was coated in thick layers of tears — the variety that drop directly from your eyes, like rain, and without your even having realized them. I buried my head in her lap and bawled and told her I loved her, too. And…

“…I know Grandpa meant well. I know he wasn’t treated nicely, but everybody is fine.”

She patted my hair.

“I love you so much, KK. You know I love you, don’t you?”

“I do.” Lifting my head, I looked up at her sideways like I did when I was little. She smiled down at me and wiped my cheeks. I put my head back down on her lap while she continued stroking my hair, and we sat like that for a very long time. I couldn’t gauge it, but the light changed outside, I know.

She knows she’s old and that it’s time to quit looking at the world through bullshit-colored glasses, I guess. I’m so glad she flagged me down.

Next week, I’m driving back to Dad’s. Maybe this time, I’ll bring polish. I’m on a roll with this pedicure thing.

Perhaps, I should practice polishing my own toes while I’m at it, even.

Best in Something: May 9, 1980

The wind from the storm was blowing our blue tutus all over the place as we tried to pose for group photos. I’d been so excited just a few hours before, but all I wanted to do as the flashes illuminated the awning outside the theater was rip off my tulle costume. And cry. Continue reading

Ruth Part Deux

It’s three in the morning. I’ve got to be awake and ready to shuttle Isy<3 to school in a few hours, but I can’t sleep. I watched “Troy” in its entirety. I played about ten games of Bejeweled. I stared at Russell, counted his snores, and watched the ceiling fan. Post ice cream!

Kicked the covers off. Pulled them back over me ten minutes later. Then I got up and made some Chai tea. Screw it. I’m up. 

I keep thinking about Great Ruth, as Bella calls her, and how Dad had to put her in a nursing home day before yesterday under the guise of “rehabilitation.” I don’t think we’re fooling anyone, though; Grandma’s ninety. It’s not like she’s Lance Armstrong bouncing back from prostate cancer (or whatever that was he had). 

Last week Ruth fell a few times. Dad called to cancel my belated birthday lunch. He was too worried about leaving Grandma alone until her doctor’s appointment. I never guessed it’d all end up like this — one brain aneurism and at least two strokes later. 

She was surly at the hospital when she asked me who I was, all the while winking at Russell behind my back. Old bat. 

Her hands were dry, and so I pulled the lotion from my bag, “Grandma, would you like for me to rub this on your hands? They’re really scaly.”

She held her right hand up as far as she could: “Oh, honey, no need. They don’t work anymore since the stroke.”

I didn’t want to look at her like that, with her rigid fingers and whatnot. This wasn’t my grandmother. 

“Well, you’re dehydrated,” I argued.

“I am NOT a water drinker.”

Oh. Ok. Not a water drinker. Check. Continue reading